The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
If you follow me on Facebook, you may have noticed that I have been really busy of late organizing, promoting and holding a huge garage sale and selling a house in the post-Bush Great Recession world.
I won’t bore you with the details of that, but the first of three garage sales is finally over and the house sale is well underway. It shouldn’t be much longer now and I’ll be hitting the MoJo Road on at least a semi-permanent basis.
None of this is about the money. It never has been with me and never will be. Just because everybody else in the world and all mainstream news organizations and some bloggers appear to you to be in this for the money, that is not my main goal. But I am acutely aware that it takes money to practice the kind of journalism we need to make this semblance of a democracy work.
I am not the only educated person who has been following the impact of new technology on the news business over the past couple of decades who holds this view. The reason I am writing today is to tell you about an interview and survey I just conducted this week with a journalism professor and research academic in North Carolina.
Dr. Brian L. Massey, a professor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University in Greenville, sent me an e-mail message asking me to complete his latest survey of independent news sites around the United States. I answered his questions in an online form that will generate an e-mail to him where he can pull the information and plug it into a statistics program and compile the results. He will then analyze the results and publish an article about his findings in an academic journal.
After that I called him on the telephone and had quite an interesting conversation about the state of the news media in America. We talked about some of the key developments that have taken place over the past two and a half decades, and shared our thoughts on what the future holds.
It was not surprising that he and I share a similar view that independent online news is the future not only of the news business in the U.S., but is key to the future — if we expect to keep some semblance of democracy going in America.
The mainstream corporate chain newspapers and television news stations have just let us down time and time again, and their style of “fair and balanced” news funded by big corporate advertisers is not what citizens need to make informed choices about public affairs and public policy. We are going to have to do better than that, and so we are going to have to be creative and tenacious in finding ways to build the economy for the news we really “need” as opposed to the news people say they “want.”
Even survey researchers and public relations specialists who conduct focus groups have to be smart enough to read between the lines of what people say they want and what they will actually consume. Just because silly cat videos get more shares on Twitter than investigative news does not mean that more people really care about stupid cat videos. It just makes for an easy, non-controversial laugh.
But what if news managers at daily newspapers and television news stations and sensational bloggers decided all anyone cared about was stupid cat videos and that serious news about public affairs was not worth covering? Is that really the world you want to live and work in?
Many big news organizations have made a series of bad mistakes in recent years relying on this kind of research to make decisions. Take the Birmingham News in my home town, which is part of the Newhouse chain across the country.
From Portland, Oregon to Cleveland, Ohio to New Orleans, Louisiana, as well as Mobile and Huntsville, Alabama, there is no daily newspaper anymore because those managers we used to call “pencil pushers” made some bad business decisions based on flawed analysis. Much like the Bush administration went to war in Iraq based on bad intel that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction — and that the people of Iraq would welcome the U.S. military with open arms and roses — the money men at Newhouse projected in 2004 that they had 20 years more of 20 percent profits to look forward to in the daily print news business. Based on this bad analysis, they built big brand new buildings in Birmingham and Mobile and other places.
Then the bloggers came on the scene and started cutting into their readership. Craigslist came along and crushed their classified ad departments into dust. (They still have not figured out they need to hire better programmers to compete. See my comments in the end). And the Bush Great Recession hit in a rude awakening. All of a sudden the big news outfits were not only not hitting their quarterly profit projections. They were actually losing money for the first time in decades.
The New York Times has tried a lot of things to become profitable again, including hiring a conservative editorial page editor, firing all seven of its environmental reporters to appease big business, and charging for its online content. But none of it is working. They are still losing money. The Washington Post sold out to Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com. They are still losing money.
Upstarts on the scene like The Huffington Post and Politico are a different story. Ariana Huffington, a celebrity personality, started her own blog and built the audience up with liberal bloggers working for free. When the opportunity arose, she sold out to American Online, AOL, for more money than Bezos paid for the Washington Post. They immediately fired all the unpaid liberal bloggers. She even won a lawsuit from a judge who said she didn’t have to pay them from the proceeds.
But not everyone on Facebook caught this story, so some people still share their links. Politico is a different story entirely. The money behind it came from proceeds generated by the ownership of television stations, but the owner is in the process of selling off his broadcast empire to support his family so he can do political news in Washington, D.C. full time.
It just so happens I was already on the independent news scene in Washington back in 2004 and 2005, but moved back to Alabama to take care of my aging mother at that time. I have spent the past decade experimenting with independent news online and figuring out ways to build the economy to support it. So I was one of the first Web publishers contacted by Professor Massey to find out how we are doing and what we think the future holds.
Hopefully his research will be published in the not too distant future and we can share the results with you here. One of the many problems with the mainstream news media in America is that it never really reports on the research about media. The only type of research the public sees is public opinion survey research, one of the branches of communications research pioneered by former journalists turned social scientists.
It is hard to have an intelligent conversation sometimes — even with other journalists, much less union leaders or environmental activists — when people have no idea what has gone down over the past 25 years because crucial information has just not been reported in the mass media. They are too busy covering sensational celebrity news, sensational crime or localized parochial news — and sharing cat videos — to take the time to try to educate the public about what really matters.
We have been charting a different course, and will we will stay the course. It is not going to get us as much “traffic” as stupid cat videos — or make us as rich and famous as Ariana Huffington. But who cares? We are confident we can generate enough revenue to pay the expenses to do the kind of journalism we want to practice — and make a difference along the way. And we can have a hell of a lot of fun doing the right thing.
Won’t you join us on the MoJo Road?
By the way, just as an experiment, I spent $40 on a classified ad in the Birmingham News and that also got me a “featured” ad on the al.com Website for the garage sale. But I did my own informal focus group research, asking people how they learned about the garage sale. Only one old guy driving a DARE police car he bought at auction, a full-time junk salesman, found it that way. Everybody else said they saw the ad on Craigslist or the Facebook share of the Craigslist ad. I had many conversations with people who said they don’t bother to pay attention to the local newspaper anymore – in print or online. The key phrase I heard was: “They suck.”
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.